The Importance of Questioning


As Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison argue good questioning is a fundamental but “ubiquitous” and “fluid” part of the learning process. Effective questioning should also allow teachers to formatively assess students understanding of a new concept, motivate students to engage in their learning and encourage students to ask their own questions, as such the quality of questioning can make or break a lesson. The question must be asked then – how can we make sure our questioning is effective?

  1. Cold Calling:

Lemov refers to the ‘culture of engaged accountability’ where every student knows that it is a possibility that they will have to answer a question. As such students can’t afford to be RHINOs, Really Here in Name Only, (Oakley et al, 2002), hiding behind their more proactive peers who regularly put their hands up. The awareness that they could be asked a question, ensures that students engage and attend the questions asked rather than “switching off” as they know one of their peers is likely to volunteer an answer. Cold calling also allows you to target your questioning focusing on at risk groups of students or students that require a little persuasion to engage in the lesson.

  1. Hands-up:

The growing popularity of cold-calling, has led to criticism of the traditional hands-up approach, predominantly for the reasons above regarding our in class RHINOs. Hands-up can be used to quickly assess a classes understanding of new content, if many hands go up then it may be assumed that students have understood that concept and you can move on, while few hands may indicate a need to revisit the concept. In “ Making Every Lesson Count” Andy and Shaun recommend that when few students raise their hands, you should question those that have kept their hands down as to what they are “struggling to understand” – this means that “sitting on their hands” is not an easy way to opt-out. Similarly it is important to allow students who have raised their hand to answer as they have attended to the question, thought about their response and therefore merit the praise and opportunity that comes from answering the question.

  1. Open and Closed Questions:

Closed questioning has received a bad press, for allowing only basic answers, while open-questions are hailed for providing a rich tapestry of qualitative data. Open-questions allow student to expand on their understanding, however to discount the value of closed-questions would be incorrect. Closed-questions can force students to retrieve prior knowledge, recall key facts and figures and also allow teachers to assess the base/surface knowledge students have before delving into this in greater depth. As such it is logical to usually start with closed questions before moving onto open questions.

  1. Probing:

It is important that we do not accept superficial or basic answers, therefore while the initial question is important, it is only as good as the subsequent questions that follow it. Although a basic idea, any questioning can be easily developed by considering the “serve and return” idea in which teachers follow up the response to the first question with another question. This fosters the culture in your class that superficial answers will not meet expectations. Going beyond the simple idea of serve and return, teachers may wish to consider “Socratic questioning” which uses a hierarchical set of question themes/stems to challenge students thinking – these questions move from clarification of students thinking (i.e. Why do you say that?) to questions that question the question (i.e. Why do you think I asked that question?). These final questions can be used when modelling metacognitive processes (see previous blog) to encourage students to think beyond the declarative knowledge used when answering a question. A full list of Socratic Questions can be found here)

  1. Dealing with “Don’t know”:

We’ve all been there (typically mid-observation or as a member of SLT drops-in) when a student responds with “I don’t know”. It can be easy to move on, asking another, simpler question or passing the question to another student – anything to avoid the dreaded silence. However if we accept “I don’t know” we run the risk of making this an acceptable norm of our classroom, and an easy out for our students who don’t want to struggle – we must therefore persist. I dropped in on Sam Atkins, our Deputy Leader of Geography, with a year 7 class last week. The students were discussing the impacts of tourism in the Arctic, and Sam was trying to draw out from a particular student how increasing awareness of the negative impacts of tourism might affect people’s holiday decision. Whilst the student understood the negative impacts of tourism he was not making the connection Sam was after. What was great to see was that Sam persisted with his questioning – there were many students around the room that clearly had the answer and were keen to give it. It would have been easy for Sam to ask one of these students, but he did not. Instead Sam reminded the student of what he and others had already said, clarifying this for the student and then rephrased the question without reducing the challenge. When this was unsuccessful, Sam then gave the student the answer but asked him to explain how Sam had reached that answer. On top of this it was clear that in his classroom that the struggle the student was experiencing was normal and neither the student nor his peers felt uncomfortable. Of course there are times when no matter the strategies you out in place a student may still “not know”, the teacher must then make the decision to move on and ask another student, however it is important that the teacher returns to the original student later in the lesson or questioning phase to check they have listened to the correct answer and progressed from the “don’t know” stage to a degree of understanding.


Ben Crockett

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